A lot of people in Illinois didn't like what was happening in their state 135 years ago. Political discourse was becoming more contentious as the electorate became more polarized, north and south.
Worse, many thousands of Illinois residents, though fully enfranchised in theory, in fact had little say about who went to Springfield to represent them. These were the voters -- generally Republicans in and around Chicago and Democrats downstate -- who, unable to muster a plurality, could only watch as candidates inimical to their interests were elected.
So some influential people -- Joseph Medill, publisher of the Chicago Tribune among them -- came up with an idea: Instead of having state representatives run in single-member districts, they would form three-member "super districts," eliminating the winner-take-all feature of the old system.
The immediate effect was to make it possible for substantial minorities to win representation; a candidate in a three-member district could be elected with as little as 25 percent of the vote. Typically, one seat went to the hard core of the majority party, one to a more independent perspective within that party and one to the minority-party candidate.
But something else became apparent, according to Rob Richie, executive director of the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. Bipartisan cooperation became the norm, since Illinois was no longer split along party lines. More candidates found themselves blunting their sharp edges -- both in their campaigns and in their party caucuses. And since the sharp divisions were no longer necessary, more moderate candidates in both parties started to seek election. Bridge-building became the norm.
And that, says Richie, is how it went in Illinois from 1870 to 1980, when "reformers" -- in a classic case of fixing the unbroken -- slashed the number of members in the state House and also opted for smaller, single-member districts.
All the problems that led to the 110-year Illinois "experiment" are present today in elections to the U.S. House of Representatives. Political campaigns are increasingly divisive, moderate voices are marginalized in both major parties and, in virtually every state, substantial electoral minorities have no one of their choosing to represent them.
As Richie put it, "All those red states have blue people in them, and the blue states have red people in them. But their votes don't elect anybody."
And it is growing worse, as state party operatives use increasingly sophisticated computer models to draw congressional district lines so as to maximize their advantage. Here's how good they've become: Pennsylvania's 19 districts, carved out by the Republican-controlled legislature, elected 12 Republicans -- even though Democrats held a statewide voter edge of 540,000.
Such gerrymandering has become routine across America. And the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on the Pennsylvania case, said last month that it was powerless to interfere in what it said was essentially a political matter.
It's easy enough to see why the court -- which earlier overturned maps drawn specifically to create black-majority (or near-majority) districts -- doesn't want to enter the thicket. To argue against a specific gerrymander is to imply that there is a fair (and aesthetically pleasing) way to create districts. There isn't. People don't live in checkerboard squares, and political interests don't follow straight lines. Have a dozen cartographers divide Pennsylvania into 19 roughly equal parcels, and you're likely to produce a dozen electoral results.
And it matters. More than 98 percent of incumbents have won House elections since 1996, almost all by lopsided margins.
Is there any way to produce fairer elections that provide at least a reasonable chance that most voters will be able to elect someone who represents their interests?
Richie believes there is: The three-member congressional super districts his organization has been touting for years will, he says, make possible the political civility and inter-party cooperation that marked Illinois politics for more than a century, while empowering any political or racial minority that can muster at least 25 percent of the vote. And all with reasonable-looking, more or less "natural" district boundaries.
The group would combine the super districts with a system of "choice" voting, in which voters get to indicate not just their first choice but also their second and third -- giving candidates an incentive to build coalitions rather than polarize the electorate. Richie makes a strong case that the two reforms taken together would cure just about all that is wrong with the present arrangement -- including low voter turnout.
It won't happen this year, of course, since it would require repealing the 1967 legislation mandating that all U.S. House districts be single-member. But Richie hopes at least to get the conversation started.